By Sean Hartnett
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Cheap scoring is a rare commodity in the modern NHL. Teams are always looking to lengthen their production down the lineup, and finding an inexpensive bottom-six forward who can regularly light the lamp is like gold dust.
No NHL skater has bettered Rangers forward Brandon Pirri’s four goals through three preseason games. Only Ottawa Senators center Philip Varone has collected more preseason points (seven) than Pirri (six). Teammate Mika Zibanejad is the only player in the league who boasts a better points-per-game average than Pirri’s 2.0.
Let’s get this straight: A preseason hot streak isn’t a reliable indicator of whether a forward can be productive during the regular season. A good number of games are played against split squads or combinations of NHL veterans, fringe players and prospects. Former Rangers defenseman Matt Hunwick scored two goals in 60 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, yet he has already recorded three goals through three preseason games.
So let’s not get carried away with Pirri’s impressive preseason production. What’s more important is his regular season track record. The 6-foot forward does one thing very well, and it’s the hardest thing to do in this league – he scores goals regularly when he’s in the lineup. His 0.33 goals per game over the past two seasons is tied for 30th among NHL players who have skated in at least 100 games. Over the past three seasons, the 25-year-old is tied for 24th in the league with a 14.0 shooting percentage among players with a minimum of 300 shots on goal.
Following the Rangers’ 4-3 overtime defeat to the rival Philadelphia Flyers, head coach Alain Vigneault praised Pirri’s scoring touch – though he also stated concerns over the forward’s strength and decision-making.
“There’s no doubt that he’s got the knack to find the net and score,” Vigneault told reporters in Philadelphia following the defeat. “Tonight, he scored a big goal for us. But there’s other areas where I need to be sure he’s going to be able to make the play, get the puck out, be strong on the wall. And tonight, in certain areas, he needed to make a better play. But there’s no doubt offensively that he’s got good hands and he can find the back of the net.”
The Blueshirts are currently carrying 39 players on their training camp roster, and Vigneault said whether the Rangers enter the regular season with 22 or 23 players is “going to be about the money.” If the Rangers can only squeeze 22 players on their opening night roster, they would carry 13 forwards (not including the injured Oscar Lindberg), six defensemen and two goaltenders.
Their preseason roster of 23 forwards needs to be whittled down to 13 or 14, depending on cap implications. Eleven of these forwards are locks to make the opening night lineup: Pavel Buchnevich, Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello.
That leaves just two or three forward spots up for grabs, with Nathan Gerbe, Tanner Glass, Josh Jooris and Maxim Lapierre being Pirri’s most experienced competition. Being able to play all three forward positions can only help Pirri’s case.
“He has played a lot of center,” Vigneault said earlier this preseason. “In my discussions with him, he says that he can play any position, and when I hear that from a player, it’s always a great thing, that versatility, as long as you can play any of those positions well.”
Signed to a one-year, $1.1 million contract, Pirri represents good value for money. He’s shifty, gets his body into high-scoring areas around the crease and packs a quick release and a wicked one-timer. Over the years, the Rangers haven’t had enough shoot-first, ask-questions-later guys on their power play.
Fourth-line grinders and penalty-killing specialists are a dime a dozen in this league. Pirri is the rarity with value and upside. My gut says he makes this team and turns into a fan favorite.
If Pirri can mold himself into more than a sniper, he will satisfy Vigneault and could prove to be one of the best bargains of the summer.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey